It’s been nearly 15 years to the day since Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King first hit theaters, and movies — to say nothing for the world itself — have changed so much in that cosmic blink of an eye that the early aughts seem so much further away then they actually are. Time is moving at the same pace it always has, yet the rate of acceleration due to modern life feels out of whack — as if we are all permanently stuck aboard a Scrambler carnival ride that continues to yank and thrust us through our days without ever giving us a moment to get out, stretch our legs, and unrelentingly vomit until the dizziness subsides. Such is life in 2018.
It’s difficult to look around at this unfamiliar landscape we call America these days and not feel that things are irrevocably broken. Ever wonder what life would be like if Sauron won? Just turn on the news. The act of merely getting through a day with your sanity intact is akin to Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom.
We’re not being glib here by comparing the evil of a fantasy story to real world events. After all, the best art not only mirrors society, but endures and adapts to the age in which it currently resides. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy continues to do just this.
Tolkien himself was reportedly not a fan of people finding political allegories in his work, but how can one not? The author himself served during World War I, and, consciously or not, those experiences resonated on the printed page of his work. Across the decades, Sauron and his minions have been seen as stand-ins for everyone from Hitler to Bin Laden. (Indeed, with The Fellowship of the Ring hitting theaters shortly after 9/11, Gandalf’s “what we have to do with the time given to us” speech to a world-weary Frodo took on an entirely new context). With dark history threatening to repeat itself and society feeling like it is on the precipice of reverting to an earlier, uglier time, one thing that can’t be extinguised is the light of hope. And hope is something that, as Tolkien reminds us, is more powerful than evil…even if it is just a fool’s hope.
Our advice of how to deal with all of this? Find comfort where you can and, above all else, practice self care. Temporarily lose yourself in the entertainments that help you escape, because there is healing power in such things. Lately we’ve been doing this by revisiting Howard Shore’s soundtrack for The Return of the King, and we find that its highwire act between peace and chaos resonates more than ever.
Moreso, it is the perfect soundtrack to unwind to.
Even removed from the context of the film (and its relationship to our uncertain times), Shore’s music is rousing stuff. Artistically evocating the classical greats while accomplishing the unthinkable task of aurally bringing Middle Earth to life — itself no small feat given how integral music is in-universe within Tolkien’s work — the Return of the King soundtrack is unbelievable.
The soundtrack itself has never been presented better than in a just-released 6-LP limited edition box set featuring the complete recordings of the score. Limited to 8,000 individually numbered copies, this is the definitive version of Shore’s music for the film. And believe us, it still is unmissable.
Take for example the track “The Steward of Gondor.” Within the confines of the movie, it is a foreboding prelude to war. On its own however it is a soaring-yet-soothing epic that wouldn’t be out of place on one of those Pure Moods albums from the 1990s. Then at the 2:35 mark, the piece unleashes it’s secret weapon as it morphs into Billy Boyd’s “The Edge of Night.”
“Mist and shadow, cloud and shade, all shall fade, all shall fade,” Boyd sings, hauntingly, and the beauty of the moment recalls Samwise’s speech from The Two Towers: “There’s still some beauty in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”
The appropriately named “The End of All Things” opens with bombast Elvish choir singing that eventually settles down into Renée Fleming’s solo vocals. On screen, the world is seemingly ending. Taken at its own merits, this is a dynamic work that feels as earth-shattering as it indeed is. Yet weirdly it also has a calming effect, like a cup of chamomile after a long day.
“The Grey Havens,” representing Frodo’s embarking on his well-earned journey to the Undying Lands, features elements from Shore’s other major Lord of the Rings themes and virtuouso flute playing from Sir James Galway.
To best illustrate what a calming effect the Return of the King soundtrack can have, one ultimately needs to look no further than the Best Original Song Academy Award-winning “Into the West.” Performed by timeless Eurythmics vocalist Annie Lennox (here light years away from her other notable soundtrack effort, “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” from Scrooged), this is a ballad that ranks right alongside of “All Things Must Pass” in terms of stating that these scary times are just temporary, and we will endure.
In Tolkien’s work, the Undying Lands are a metaphor for the next life. Written by Fran Walsh, Howard Shore and Annie Lennox, “Into the West” wisely makes the meaning more oblique, to allow the listeners to wrap the song’s comforting words around them like a blanket. To be clear, the implied message here is that death is not the end, but the adaptability of the lyrics can be applied to any passing, with the final message being that peace can be found in the darkest of times, and love and light will prevail.
Lennox’s delivery of this song is chill and tear-inducing, an absolute classic that reminds us that we are all in this together. There is unity to be found even in times of great division. There is for everyone “a light on the water” that can represent the hope to endure the hardship. “Into the West” and indeed all of Shore’s work on the Return of the King soundtrack has this mission statement at heart, to remind listeners of Tolkien’s thesis that good with always triumph, even when hope seems faint. And it does so masterfully.